Ida (2014); directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

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Ida is one of those miraculous films where the images on the screen are so startling, so unique, so themselves, that the visuals take on a whole subterranean level of meaning, coursing beneath the actual plot. The power of the images tell their own story. Often the characters are seen in the bottom of the frame, with space ricocheting up above their heads, tall trees, or a wrought-iron gate and window, or a wall. So we are forced to deal with the images on their own terms. They demand attention, but not in a pushy or distracting way. They ARE the story. Often the camera is static but what is going on in the frame, just in terms of its setup, is so arresting that you need that static quality just in order to take in what you are seeing. It’s like standing before a gigantic painting in the Met. Everything goes still as you face the grandeur and mastery of what is before you, and you need to slow everything down, inside, in order to look this way, that, to take it all in. So Ida‘s static quality then becomes an engine of enormous tension.

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Directed by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebokowska). Anna (also known as Ida) is an orphan, who was raised in an orphanage before joining a convent. She is about to take her vows when the film begins. She is a young woman, with a serious alert face, and she gives herself over to her chores and her prayers and her convent duties with both a practical nature, stomping around in her work boots, and a rapture. It is an isolated and peaceful community, something that is to be treasured, especially in 1962 Poland, gripped in the vice of both Communist rule and the harrowing living memory of World War II. It is a Poland haunted by its own memories. Milan Kundera wrote a lot about “forgetting,” especially in terms of living under totalitarian rule. The role of “forgetting” in such situations is both a survival technique and a tragedy. An enforced system of belief, complete repression, complete censorship, has a way of dictating reality. Pawlikowski often places the figures in the bottom half of the frame, with empty space looming above them. It is a visual manifestation of that feeling of the burden of history, of forgetting. No other film looks like this.

Anna does not know that she is living in a state of “forgetting.” She has no memory of her parents. She does not know anything about them. She was a foundling. But all of that is about to change.

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Before the vow ceremony, the Mother Superior calls Anna in to her office and tells her to go visit her aunt Wanda, the only remaining member of her family. Wanda will not come to visit Anna, Anna has to go to her. Even though Anna has never met Wanda, did not know of Wanda’s existence, and is perfectly ready to take her vows and submit to the life of the convent, she obeys.

She shows up at Wanda’s door. Wanda is played by the absolutely magnificent Agneta Kulesza. Wanda is a judge, and spends her off-hours drinking too much and having random sex. She chain smokes. All of it is her own version of “forgetting,” a swan-dive into oblivion in order to wipe out the memories. We don’t know what those memories are at first. They are eventually revealed. A woman in her 40s, she lived through both the Russian/German carving up of Poland, and the Holocaust. In order to survive, she collaborated with the new Communist regime, and became a notable judge known as “Red Wanda,” ruthless with enemies of the state. In the character of Wanda, you can see the disorientation of an entire culture, overrun, destroyed, brutalized, conquered. People do what they must do to survive. But perhaps Wanda did so with a bit too much gusto? We don’t know for sure, but the haunting reality of her current life tells the whole story.

Meanwhile, within 5 minutes of Anna being in Wanda’s apartment, Wanda drops a bomb: “You do know you’re Jewish, right?”

No. Anna didn’t know.

Anna and Wanda set out in Wanda’s beat-up car to find out how Anna’s parents died. It is a quest for information. It is also a journey into the past, a past that was fractured, with millions falling into the abyss. Now, under Communist Rule, it is as though it never happened. Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn covers the same ground. Anna and Wanda drive through a bleak and beautiful landscape, with empty fields, the emptiness shrieking with what had happened there once.

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The relationship between Anna and Wanda, as it develops, is a major part of why Ida works so well, although it works on every level it needs to work. Anna is somewhat shocked by Wanda’s floozy ways, but, with a faint grin, she does admit she sometimes has “carnal thoughts,” too.

They interview people in the village where Anna hailed from, people who knew her parents, people who had shielded them from the Nazis, their nice Christian neighbors. Secrets fester. There is a ton of cultural and generational guilt, too huge to even be acknowledged. And Wanda shares in that guilt.

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There’s something about the way Pawlikowski films this quiet haunting story that makes it seem like it hails from the past. The modern world is not in evidence. The Cold War has descended, leaving a chill in the landscape. People lose themselves in music and dance, the little echoing hotel bars filled with revelers, as the outside world looms beyond the windows. Wanda and Anna pick up a hitchhiker, (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young guy who is a tenor saxophonist in a band, he’s on his way to a gig. Anna sits at a table in the bar, her nun’s habit dangling, looking on as the band jams out a John Coltrane tune after the gig. It seems like they are the only people alive.

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Anna and the saxophonist connect, in a tender and sweet and unspoken way. He knows she is looking for her parents. And that she is Jewish, despite the nun’s garb. He jokes, “I just found out I have some gypsy in me,” bonding with her, and she smiles.

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There are scenes where Anna stands at the top of the stairway in the hotel, the sound of the band echoing up the marble halls, life going on elsewhere, quiet and yet strong, as gigantic world events still wreak their havoc on the individual lives of the people onscreen.

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What ends up happening is completely devastating. This is partially because the film goes at its subject matter in an oblique way. Scenes are filled with silence, the light streaming through the windows, or the car parked at a ramshackle filling station in the middle of a field, the figures dwarfed by the countryside. There is a lot of talk, but feelings aren’t really discussed. The feelings are there, they pulse off the screen, but something about the direction and the script helps us keep our distance. That distance is where the devastation comes from. I got the sense that I was in the presence of a completely brutalized landscape, scorched earth – not only literally but within people’s minds. The Nazis have almost become cartoon villains at this point, used repeatedly in cinema as unambiguous bad guys. There is nothing wrong with that, the Holocaust is a huge topic, and the mind balks at trying to understand. But the world shown in Ida has shadings of treachery and betrayal that arose as a byproduct of the German invasion, the fallout, so to speak. People do all kinds of terrible things to survive. One cannot be faulted for doing what one has to do, and things like honor and valor are abstract concepts when it comes to life and death matters. There were those who had good intentions towards their Jewish neighbors, but finally, inevitably, it became Us or Them. Anna and Wanda showing up on these people’s doorsteps, asking questions, brings back things they would rather forget.

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The performances are revelatory, and the film is often quite funny. The only music we hear is that which plays on the radio, or record players, or from the little hotel bar band. Other than that, silence. Knocking on doors. Driving down roads. Wanda snoring in the hotel bed, passed out fully clothed, as Anna kneels and prays.

The film is so quiet that the devastation, when it comes, feels like a bomb going off deep below the ocean’s surface. The reverb is almost total. There is a delay before we start to feel the waves pulse up top, barreling towards the shoreline. You know something has been exploded. You don’t know what the destruction will look like. You have to wait and see.

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Ida is still out in theaters, although probably not for long. If possible, you should see this one on the big screen. The film has been haunting me for two days. I can’t get what it looks like out of my mind. And what it looks like IS what it is about. The more I think about it, the bigger it seems.

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23 Responses to Ida (2014); directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

  1. SeanG says:

    Yes, great movie. I really enjoyed his first movie,”Last Resort”. It’s not available on DVD in the US!

    Hey Sheila, ever see “High Hopes” by Mike Leigh??

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t seen High Hopes – OR Last Resort. Bah, so much to see, so little time.

      Why do you mention High Hopes? Does it remind you of Ida in some way?

  2. Desirae says:

    People being cut off from their heritage like poor Ida here – it seems like it should be in the distant past, but it really isn’t. My best friend found out that she’s actually Jewish a couple of years ago – she just turned 29. Her Mom’s family name is Salmon and she was always told it was French (and she also always said that nobody French was named Salmon and it didn’t sound like a real name – and she was right!)

    Their name was actually Solomon. They were German Jews who fled the country in the 30’s, moved to France and changed their name to try and blend in. I don’t know why it took so long for someone to tell her this. But history is never really history, I guess.

  3. KC says:

    They played this trailer a lot when I was covering SIFF. It fascinated me, but based on your review, it seems like a very different film from the way it was advertised. Almost more romantic.

  4. KC says:

    I mean the *trailer* made it seem more romantic.

  5. sheila says:

    I don’t remember the trailer. It’s strange because some of the images are soooo romantic – the night club scenes, and some of the framing – there’s a very KIND aspect to the film, strangely enough – but yes, it is not romantic. It’s pretty bleak, actually!

  6. SeanG says:

    Not sure why I mentioned High Hopes! hahaha Other than it’s my favorite Leigh film of all time!

    You’ll fall in love with the couple in that movie, Shirley and Cyril. Guaranteed!

  7. mutecypher says:

    I watched this tonight. A beautiful film, stark and austere and somehow humane. The static camera and the filming with the characters mostly in the bottom half of the frame created a subtle tension and a sense that something was looming over everyone. Not that the thing was malignant, but that it was there and kept everyone muted and diminished. Whether it was God in the convent, or communism when out with Wanda, or nature when in the woods and cemetery, or each one in the appropriate situation, something huge was present. I think the only times that characters filled the frame were when Wanda and Anna dug the grave, and when Anna made love. Death and sex were the only things that were important enough to crowd out the various systems that the characters were parts of.

    I loved some of the shots of Anna in the convent, her face at play with her thoughts, and she was at the bottom of the frame – not even her full head being shown. I worked harder to see what was going on when the action was on the periphery. And it created a sense of eavesdropping, for me anyway, to be watching something that wasn’t at the center of the screen.

    I thought the scene in the hotel, when Wanda comes back from drinking and dancing, was excellent. Anna had not changed out of her novice’s clothing, they argue. Wanda says that Jesus adored people like her; she was seeking love and forgiveness and trying to make herself seem special, and push back against Anna’s disapproval – all at once. Then they fight and Anna won’t let her read the Bible. What a great scene that was, with Anna listening to the music, then putting on her nightgown afterwards. She had to stay up for Wanda, and the fight, and then could go to bed.

    I was enjoying Wanda listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – one of the things that Woody Allen identifies as making life worth living, in Manhattan – and then she was just gone.

    From your description I was wondering if the movie would have much in common with Ron Hansen’s wonderful “Mariette in Ecstasy,” set as it was in a turn of the 20th century convent in upstate New York. Other than an austere tone, not really. This was just its own work of art.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – so excited you saw it! Definitely, along with Inherent Vice, the movie of the year for me.

      I loved your thoughts on the shot construction – which, I agree, is just SO powerful – a real reminder of the power of the image itself. The long long long shot where Wanda, Ida and the guy walk across the field towards the black wall of the forest in the far left of the frame. The figures are dwarfed by their environment.

      The relationship between the two women was amazing. I also loved the saxophone player – and that scene with Ida outside the club.

      Did you know that Pawlikowski only moves the camera TWICE in the whole entire picture? The last shot, where she’s walking down the lane – that was hand-held. And then the shot right before that, after the funeral, after she stays in Wanda’s apartment, she’s walking down the street, and the camera moves with her.

      The last two shots of the film – the camera moves. Other than that, it’s completely still. I thought that was so elegant – and such a challenging choice. You have to really have faith in the images you are putting up there – and the acting – to not futz with any of it, by going in close, or zooming in, or any of that.

      // Wanda says that Jesus adored people like her; she was seeking love and forgiveness and trying to make herself seem special, and push back against Anna’s disapproval – all at once. Then they fight and Anna won’t let her read the Bible. //

      Great scene!!

  8. mutecypher says:

    I missed that, that the camera only moved in the last two scenes. I kept wanting Anna to fill the screen as she was walking back to the convent in the last shot. But he held to his vision. She found her peace and went on to become a nun (I assume), but there was no shining face with swelling violins to put a stamp of triumph on Anna’s experience. She gained knowledge, but her place in the world was unchanged. And the world was unchanged.

    • sheila says:

      I didn’t realize either that he only moved the camera twice until I participated in the panel discussion at Columbia about the film. Amazing!!

      In re: her going back to the convent:

      I agree, she had to go back, and her face is somewhat impenetrable in that last scene. I LOVE her face. But she had to experience a little bit of the life she was giving up – the saxophone player, sex, all that … and now she’s ready. Now she’s ready to take her vows. That was how I saw it.

      At the panel at Columbia, Matt Seitz joked, “Remember, though, we don’t actually see her going back to the convent. That’s just our assumption.” An interesting point – and 100% true, in terms of the visuals: all we see is her walking down a road. She’s put her novice veil back on, so there’s that detail. But we don’t see the convent. Visual information is so important in the movie – I did consider, “Huh. Wonder if she’s going back …”

      I think she DOES return to the convent – and that it is a good life for her, it’s what she wanted, her faith is important – and in that faith she can live a vast kind of interior life unthinkable to all of the people leading secular lives out there. In that faith, she is FREE.

      There was some disagreement on that score at the panel – a lot of people expressed disappointment she had gone back – but I imagine those people aren’t religious. (An assumption on my part. But I personally can see the attraction of life in that convent. I come from a family with nuns in it, though – pre-Vatican II nuns – so I get the appeal.)

      And she was able to take the time to honor her lost parents. She is no longer an orphan. She knows her family, knows the horror of what happened to them. That is crucial.

  9. sheila says:

    I’ve seen the film three times now and I am still shocked by that final moment with Wanda. How casual it is. The music, her walking around her apartment, and then …

    At the panel discussion, there were a lot of Polish people there, who shared their own interpretation of that character, which was hUGELY illuminating for me – since I had missed it, it’s not part of my collective past.

    People who were “like her” are like the Bogeyman in Polish popular culture. An enemy. A hated figure. To humanize her was radical. And there was still a lot of resistance to seeing her side of things. Not that that’s wrong – but it was fascinating to hear people, who had lived through those times, wrestle with it.

  10. mutecypher says:

    I remember you and Helena talking about that in the comments after the panel discussion. It must be a powerful and conflicting thing for a Pole with familiarity of those times to have a Catholic give comfort to a person like Wanda, even more so with the Jewish heritage mixed in. Pope John Paul II played such a major role in uniting the reform movements and helping to free Poland, and my understanding is that the Church is very influential still. The movie must resonate strongly for people who have lived through those times.

    • sheila says:

      // Pope John Paul II played such a major role in uniting the reform movements and helping to free Poland, and my understanding is that the Church is very influential still. //

      Sooo true.

      And it occurred to me the third time I saw it that this was pre-Vatican-II Catholicism – Vatican II was just around the corner when Ida took place. I wonder how it impacted Poles – I know how it affected Irish Catholics (my great-aunt nuns were in habits – and then, voila, they were out of habits!).

      So it made me think of Ida, and how those changes would end up affecting her and that convent.

  11. Helena says:

    //I think she DOES return to the convent – and that it is a good life for her, it’s what she wanted, her faith is important//

    I might take this just a little further.

    Matt Zoller Seitz was very astute to point out we don’t see Ida/Anna walking into the convent at the end. When I saw it (I’ve only watched it once) I have to say I understood that scene as Ida returning to the convent. I still tend to think that, though I can entertain other possibilities too.

    Ida may be returning not least because having had a taste of the rather meagre life and vague promises oflove available to her outside the convent she prefers life as a nun. We could understand that as having a kind of status, or security, or even power not available to her as a wife or mother. However, I also think that if Ida is returning to the convent and the faith in which she was raised it is because she has learned about the nature of suffering. She has suffered herself, she has witnessed Wanda’s suffering, she has learnt of the suffering of her parents and by extension of all those killed in those murderous years, she has seen the suffering of the man who killed her parents, and the suffering of his parent. I think – purely my extrapolation – that through learning about suffering she learns something about the faith in which she was raised that she didn’t know before. So much of Catholicism was traditionally predicated on suffering, the suffering of Christ, the suffering of the Virgin. Possibly until learning about her past Ida could imagine such things, but had not experienced them herself. But now she has, and has put some meaning to what before was only words, or imagining. With that knowledge she can return to her vocation with a more profound understanding of what it means.

    What does Ida really choose, and why? When Ida puts on her aunt’s dress and shoes, and drinking and having sex with the sexy saxophonist, there is a big element of her trying out forbidden pleasures, life as a ‘civilian’, testing what she really wants. There’s also, as others have pointed out, an element of literally walking in her aunt’s (painful) shoes, living life for a moment as her aunt did, in constant pain, trying to numb herself with the few things available to her: drink, music, sex. Does this work for Ida? Does it compare to what her faith has given her? Pawlikoswki leaves it open, but I like to think she returns to the convent to address that suffering by performing a very fundamental task of monks and nuns, which is to pray for the world, for forgiveness, for compassion, for redemption.

    I could be wrong. Maybe Anna/Ida is questioning her faith, her god, asking why these things all happened. This is a question Pawlikowski subtly enhances through his choice of the music to Ida’s final scene, Bach’s ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’ (which incidentally, or not incidentally at all, is used toincredible effect in Solaris, another film about grief and the ghosts of the past rising to swallow up the living.) Here’s a translation of the words of the chorale here:

    I call to You, Lord Jesus Christ,
    I beg You, hear my cries,
    grant me mercy at this time,
    do not let me despair;
    the true faith, Lord, I mean
    that You would give me,
    to live for You,
    to be of use to my neighbor,
    to keep Your word faithfully.

    Maybe she’s losing her faith, is going back to confront her superiors, has decided to leave. Or, as I tend to think, her faith has been profoundly tested by what she’s gone through, but not broken, instead deepened. Either way, there’s something about the freedom of expression in her final walk that could lead either way, but which says ‘I have chosen for myself.’

    • sheila says:

      Helena – beautiful thoughts, so well expressed!! Thank you!

      // With that knowledge she can return to her vocation with a more profound understanding of what it means. //

      That is definitely how I took it. It was interesting – at the screening, there were a couple of comments from people who saw the ending as bleak. She’s choosing submission over making her own choices. Not to be rude, but I can’t help but think that those people cannot understand the freedom that faith can provide.

      In the convent, Ida’s interior life is her own – a vast space where she is totally free. She tried out life “outside”. Similar to the Amish tradition of “rumspringa,” Ida tasted what life offered – so that she could then choose – and choose powerfully – what she wanted to do. Becoming a nun HAS to be a choice – and you can see that in the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior in those early scenes. “you have an aunt. You are going to go and visit her.” “But I don’t want to.” “Well, you have to.” (Paraphrase.) The nuns understood that perhaps Ida was not ready – she needed to meet her aunt, be “out there” in the world.

      And then of course: as she goes to prepare for her vows – she eventually realizes she is NOT ready. She chooses to stay a novice – she understands what such a commitment is, and knows in her heart she is not ready.

      So that final moment, along the country lane … is her knowing now she is ready, and knowing that this is right for her. Before, she was not so sure – she hadn’t looked at other options, and she also had no idea who she was. The confrontation with suffering is key!! It is her heritage. Her parents existed – they suffered greatly – What would Ida’s faith have been if she had not known about that? A shallow thing, not understood fully.

      I agree entirely with your thoughts here. I think a lot of people saw life in the convent as so rigid – and it was, that’s part of the discipline of the vocation. But WITHIN that rigidity is eternity. And she just was not going to find that out in the real world.

      I loved the sax player’s description of how life would go. “You can come see us play.” “And then what?” She keeps asking, “And then?” So life “outside” is kind of a dreary series of events – that have no meaning for her. In the convent, time is different – without that ticking-away of life events, there is an enormous freedom of the inner life. (And, incidentally, that enormous freedom of the inner life was ALSO hugely important in the Stalinist years in Poland – when politics were so rigid and brainwashing that you had no choice but to submit. In that rigid environment, the ONLY place you could be free was your personal life. That was captured beautifully in the scenes in the pub, with the band playing, and people dancing and drinking. These things become hugely important if you have zero room to maneuver politically.)

  12. Helena says:

    Thanks, Sheila.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the sax player cannot offer her a life as free and beautiful as his music. And he knows that.

    • sheila says:

      Right – his listing of what they will do ends up sounding so totally banal. Even though to someone who isn’t Ida it might sound thrilling. Love, sex, music, having fun!

      She wants the eternal. He cannot provide that.

      I loved him. He was a very sympathetic character.

  13. Helena says:

    He was, indeed. The whole cast was great, not a weak link.

    I don’t know if you read this already, but Pawlikowski wrote about the making of his film here:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/21/pawel-pawlikowski-making-of-ida-polish-film

    It’s kind of magic – things seemed to be against him making the film he wanted, even as he was shooting it, and then fate intervened …

    • sheila says:

      Thanks for that – I haven’t read that one – but I will!

      Read quite a bit about the film – also his choice to go back to Poland and film there – it really was a work of nostalgia in many ways. Filming what was, essentially, his childhood landscape.

      Also – how about discovering young “Ida” in a cafe? And she’s a staunch atheist in real-life! Ha! I love that she still has no plans to pursue an acting career. So this “Ida” experience will be just one of those weird things that happens sometimes.

  14. Helena says:

    Have to say, even more than I love the fact that this won the Foreign Film Oscar (haven’t seen the other nominated films yet but they all sound pretty awesome too) I love the fact that Pawlikowski forced the orchestra stop playing until he had finished what he had to say through sheer enthusiasm and charm, and now he is an actual internet meme.

    • sheila says:

      Ha! Yes, that was great! Very happy for him! He would not be stopped. He would not stop talking! You go, sir!

      I didn’t watch the whole broadcast – I was at a party in Brooklyn, and it just got too late for lil’ old me, but I was happy to see Ida win. The other foreign films are all extraordinary too (the only one I haven’t seen is Timbuktu, but I’m dying to see it). It was a very very strong year.

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